Wednesday, May 11, 2011

God's revenge?

Well, the latest bulletin on how your money is being spent on major research reports that gays have higher cancer rates than straight people.  The headlines, as always, don't tell the whole story -- though in this case, the science reporter more or less gets it right, including a number of reasons why the study is seriously flawed.  Even investigators quoted in the BBC story say that the study doesn't make the case (though, naturally, 'more research is needed'). 

In the 2001, 2003 and 2005 California Health Interview surveys, a total of 3,690 men and 7,252 women said they had been diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.
Out of the 122,345 people interviewed, 1,493 men and 918 women described themselves as gay, while 1,116 women said they were bisexual.
Gay men were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with cancer as straight men and, on average, it happened a decade earlier.
There was no such link in women.
But then the reporter goes on to say:

The survey interviews "survivors" so is not a true representation of the number of cancer cases.
Some patients will have died before the survey and others would have been too ill to take part.
And then cites an interested bystander:
Dr Ulrike Boehmer, from the Boston University School of Public Health, said it was not possible to conclude "gay men have a higher risk of cancer" because the underlying reasons for the higher incidence could be more complicated.
This is clearly a case in which correlation doesn't imply causation and, worse given the social issues about sexual preference, implying that it is gayness that is causal is itself a story-writer's and investigator's subjective decision.

There are so many real and possible reasons why being homosexual correlates with other lifestyle factors that even to couch the story in these terms is a kind of judgment, even if not a 'value' judgment in the eyes of the investigators.

It's one thing to investigate, say, cancers associated with homosexual vs heterosexual activity--for example the physical exposure to carcinogenic viruses.  But quite a different thing to investigate whether being gay itself is causal.  Does being a professor cause disease (besides egomania)?  Or having a sense of humor?  Maybe one could study whether being married 'causes' higher rates of some disease or other (though, this might only be in the states that allow same-sex marriage!).  Indeed, if you search hard enough you will nearly always be able to detect some differences between any two groups in society.

Telling jokes at the dinner table may increase risk you or your companions may choke on their food while laughing, but it's not because of a sense of humor itself.  But using a label like homosexual adds many other unstated implications that can themselves be harmful as well as scientifically misleading.

And guess what!  Another study has shown that filthy lucre--being well off--seems to cause leukemia in childhood, at least as the reporter phrased it.

Can we now expect to see some of our more ignoble religious leaders proclaiming, from the pulpit no less, that the curse of gay behavior is God's revenge?  More likely God's revenge on the sane parts of society, by providing preachers something to draw attention (and donations) to themselves.

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